Nvidia Acquires Wireless Design Firm, Plans Tight Integration

Nvidia announced today that it's acquiring the fabless semiconductor design firm Icera. The UK-based company specializes in soft modem chipsets for a variety of devices, including laptops, netbooks, tablets, and smartphones. The two companies have a history of cooperation; Icera announced Tegra-compatible wireless chipsets back in 2009.

Nvidia's Phil Carmack writes: "This is a significant step forward in NVIDIA’s strategy to be the processor company for the post-PC era... Icera’s baseband and RF technologies span 2G, 3G and 4G networks... Icera’s programmable baseband processor architecture will allow NVIDIA and its OEM customers to innovate and adapt signaling algorithms in the rapidly evolving mobile telecommunications market."

Tegra's roadmap as of February 2011. Nvidia is a bit obsessed with superheros; the company now refers to Tegra as a "super chip" in addition to its bevy of superhero code names. In reality, Tegra 2 is a competitive solution that combines an ARM Cortex-A9 dual-core and a solid ultra-mobile NV GPU. Tights and cape are not included.

The Icera acquisition will allow Nvidia to further customize its SoC designs. ARM SoC's are designed to link with a wide array of devices depending on the needs of each particular vendor. While this maximizes compatibility, it also potentially wastes space—the logic blocks a vendor doesn't need are still present. Apple's A4 and A5 are bog-standard ARM processors that the company customized by removing the unnecessary I/O blocks. Nvidia intends to do some customization of its own, though in a different direction. Again, Carmack: "Icera’s highly efficient architecture makes it possible to cleanly integrate their baseband processor into system and software platforms rapidly and, ultimately, into the super chip [Tegra] itself, if that’s the best product approach."

In reality, there's no "if." Vendors may eventually offer different tiers of Tegra products the same way it's possible to buy a cheaper iPad that's WiFi-only or a more expensive model that includes 3G, but every Tegra product is going to incorporate some type of wireless connectivity. Integrating wireless directly into the SoC will reduce power consumption, lower manufacturing cost, and save motherboard space. It may be awhile before we see a solution like this on the market. Nvidia was demonstrating Tegra 3 (Kal-El) back in February. It's therefore likely that Kal-El's wireless and processor functions are still separate. 'Wayne,' due to launch in 2013, will likely be the first Tegra product to integrate wireless.

We suspect this deal will also increase the company's revenue. The more components a vendor sources from Nvidia, the more profit NV earns per device. Intel first pioneered this strategy with Centrino, when it required OEMs to buy an Intel processor, chipset, and wireless radio if they wanted to use the new brand name. We don't know for certain if Team Green will follow a similar licensing path, but this acquisition is likely a positive development for both the company's bottom line and its nascent mobile customer base.